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POP MUSIC | RECORD RACK

Four-Star Performers

Kirk Franklin, Sheryl Crow and PJ Harvey lead a list of artists mining new territory.

September 27, 1998|Robert Hilburn

**** KIRK FRANKLIN "The Nu Nation Project" GospoCentric/Interscope

*

The opening track in this follow-up to "God's Property . . . ," the Franklin-produced collection that is the biggest-selling gospel album ever, teases us with the kind of mock courtroom drama that you'd expect on a rap album--though the charges facing Franklin have nothing to do with the thug life.

The singer is accused of trying to inject secular touches into gospel music. And in this context, the album's first musical number is a flat-out guilty plea.

"Do you want a revolution?" Franklin asks aggressively, challenging gospel music's insular tendencies as part of a larger message about social hypocrisy and indifference. It's a sensational track that merges the urgency of rap, the bite of funk and the sweet female vocal harmony of R&B.

Rather than stick to this forceful groove, Franklin, who wrote all the album's songs, next turns to "Lean on Me," a sweeping, sentimental ballad that reaches for "We Are the World" compassion and unity, complete with guest vocals by R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige and Bono.

The rest of this 71-minute exercise keeps you off guard by going in various directions, most of them wonderfully effective. In "Something About the Name Jesus," we get an inspired gospel vocal by Rance Allen and Men of Standard set against an R&B shading so striking that it reminds you of Al Green's old days at Hi Records.

Elsewhere, Franklin and his talented vocal cohorts take us from the gospel bite of "Riverside" to the lush ballad terrain of "He Loves Me" to the Motown strut of "My Desire."

While at times you might wish the balance between contemporary snap and mainstream sheen leaned more to the former, "The Nu Nation Project" is a classy work that celebrates the power of Franklin's alluring--and in some ways revolutionary--gospel-pop vision.

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